Saturday, May 3, 2008

Belize trip: day 7

I was up early to get ready for the Mayan sacred cave tour. I had eggs, beans and fry jack at Hanna's and got packed for the trip to the cave. I met the five other women going on this tour in front of the Pacz Tours office, two Americans from Colorado and three women from Sweden. The van that we were supposed to go in wouldn't start so we waited for Pacz to find another van for us. the half hour delay proved to make a big difference.

It took almost an hour to drive to the head of the trail to the cave. Our guide Ben sat in the back with me so I got to ask him a few questions. I asked him about the different ethnic groups in Belize, what exactly was the difference between Kriole and Mestizo. He said Mestizo were handsome, like himself (Mestizo are Mayan and Spanish, Kriole are African and European, usually English). I saw a clearcut and asked Ben if they did tree planting here. Ben said that people who cut trees don't like to plant them, just as people who plant trees don't like to cut them. So no, they did not do tree planting here. At the trail head we parked and Ben handed out helmets and lunches and directed us to an outhouse before the half hour hike into the cave.

The cave is called Actun Tinichill Maktun and the tour is referred to as the ATM tour. We walked along a path through the jungle, fording several streams along the way. Ben pointed out some buttressed fig trees, which are some of the oldest trees in Belize. He said the oldest trees in Belize are around 500 years old. The soil is very thin, hardly any humus and very shallow roots, so trees are easily damaged or toppled by storms and hurricanes in the rainy season.

Eventually we arrived at a picnic spot full of people. It was Saturday, a day when schools often send students on this tour, so it was a busy day at the cave. Our half hour delay meant we were right in the thick of it now. There wasn't even room for us to sit down to eat our lunches. But some of the schoolkids moved out to give us space.

After eating lunch we donned lamps for our helmets and Ben took all our cameras and valuables to go in a drysack that he would carry for the first part of the trip into the cave. The mouth of the cave has a small river coming out of it, the only way into the cave is to swim. By Belizean standards the river water is very cold, for us it was about the temperature of a Canadian lake in the summer. We would be swimming and wading half a kilometer into the cave before we climbed up higher out of the water. Then Ben would give us our cameras. Ben was concerned about the time so he wanted us to go quickly, even passing some of the school groups ahead of us. We had to be careful about what we touched, some of the rock formations were very delicate and should not be touched.

Actun Tinichill Maktun was used by the Maya as a sacred cave in what is known as the Post-Classic period (around 1000 AD?), when Mayan civilization was going into decline. In those days there was drought and this cave was dedicated to the rain god; sacrifices were made here to the rain god to bring back the rain they needed. Before the drought the river at the mouth of the cave would have been too high to get into the cave at all, but during the drought they could and did get in. After the Mayan collapse the rain came back and for many centuries the cave was once again inaccessible, so the artifacts inside were untouched until relatively recently.

We emerged from the water into a huge cathedral-like cavern. Dotted through the cavern were the remains of large pottery urns that would have held sacrificial materials. But there were bones as well, human sacrifices to the rain god, even children. The last part of the tour in the cave we had to take our shoes off and proceed in our socks to avoid doing damage.

Artifacts were scattered on the floor of the cave, with bits of reflective tape marking them so you didn't step on them. In some places tourists had already broken artifacts and remains by stepping on them.

I asked Ben how long Mayan civilization lasted and he saluted me: "We're still here." Good point.

Pots were for the most part plain, undecorated except for a spider monkey on one pot. The pots stood right side up, sideways and upside down representing heaven, earth and the underworld, and smashed to release the spirit power of the sacrifice.

Some of the stalactite formations were like pipe organs; when you hit them they gave off different tones. ceremonies in this cave were probably accompanied by flute music and drumming.

Rock formations in the cave were black manganese rock (hard and rounded edges), white dolomite (chalky), and calcite crystalline stalactites and pillars.

At the end of the cavern we ascended a ladder into a smaller chamber containing the bones of a child and the Crystal Maiden, a female skeleton spread-eagle on the floor.

On the way back we retrieved our shoes and then had to descend a steep cliff. It seemed much harder to descend than to ascend, you didn't want to look down too much. Ben showed me where to put my hands and feet with each step, and then directed me to show the next person, and so on. We each directed the person behind us how to come down the cliff. We swam and waded back to the cave entrance and hiked out to our van. We arrived back in San Ignacio just around 5pm. The American women were staying at a lodge outside of town but the Swedish women were at a hotel just down the street from me so they invited me to have dinner with them at Cafe Cayo, across from Hanna's.

I very much enjoyed dinner with the Swedes. Another American couple from New York joined us and we compared notes about our ATM tours. They had gone on Friday and had a better tour in the sense that it was much less crowded and their guide took more time to explain things to them.

They learned that the archaeologists studying this cave allowed these tourist visits because they needed the money to continue their research, but they ran the risk of doing damage to the caves. Apparently they have secured a substantial grant to do their research so it is likely that the tours will be stopped because they won't need the money any more.

Certainly you'd never see such a tour in the US or Canada, where artifacts are left on the ground in the open and anyone can walk through, touch them, even break them. And, parts of the cave are somewhat dangerous, there are no guard rails or security measures, we North Americans would never allow such tours due to liability issues.

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Back to day 6
On to day 8...

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